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Q & A ~ Is it true that the Westminster divines forbid the use of vigil or wake services?

Before I answer your question, I must say that I am not very comfortable with the terms ‘vigil service’ or ‘wake service.’ These terms carry some religious connotations which differ from culture to culture. In the Irish culture the vigil over the corpse prior to burial often involves revelry. In the Chinese religious culture, a vigil or wake is a time in which family members of the deceased stay awake to watch over the corpse, whether to prevent theft or, as some believe, to prevent any black cats from leaping over the coffin. It is believed that if a cat leaps over the coffin, then the corpse would sit up. For these reasons, I would personally prefer to call the services memorial services.

Now, as to the question of the divines’ position on memorial services, it must be said that they did not sanction such services, but then, neither did they forbid them. WCF 21.5 does allow worship services upon special occasions, and the Directory for the Public Worship of God, does include a section for the solemnisation of marriage by a minister of the Gospel. And so it would appear that there is nothing against having memorial services prior to burial of a departed believer. There is a section in the Directory of Worship entitled "Concerning Burial of the Dead." However, the prohibitions in this section are on account of the superstitions at the graveside that had developed, such as "kneeling down, and praying by or towards the dead corpse." The further prohibition on "praying, reading, and singing, both in going to and at the grave," was based on the fact that these have been "grossly abused." We do not know exactly what the abuse referred to involve, but no biblical grounds are given. In any case, these prohibitions are advisory and not binding (as far as we are concerned).

Moreover, the reason why memorial services are not mentioned in the Directory of Worship is simply because it was not and is not a practice in Scotland or England to put the body on display at all. Sometimes the body is buried immediately. Sometimes after a while, but no one will get to see corpse except those who were present at the deathbed.

In Singapore and elsewhere there is a traditional delay of a few days, which serves to allow friends and relatives both to take a last look at the deceased and to share in the grief of the family. Under such circumstances, I do not think that the divines would have forbidden the memorial services. Indeed, the Directory of Worship also indicates that on the day of burial, "the minister, as upon other occasions, … if he be present, may put them in remembrance of their duty." Memorial services, though not compulsory, serve such a purpose. The messages are designed to remind Christians of the nearness of death and the need to be diligent in the service of the Lord. They are also designed to remind unbelievers of the nearness of death and judgement, and so to call them to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ before death comes upon them suddenly. That the occasion of death is much suited to call man to remembrance is indicated by Solomon: "It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart" (Ecc 7:2). The additional benefit of such services is that they bring the church together to share the grief of the family, and so serves as a witness of Christian love to the family of the bereaved (cf. Jn 13:34).

Christians must however be careful not to allow any superstition or appearance of superstition to enter into these gatherings. Praying for the dead is forbidden and bowing before the corpse as if in worship should certainly be avoided even if you are thinking about the deceased or praying for the bereaved family.